Current Reviews


Back Issue! #20

Posted: Monday, February 19, 2007
By: Shawn Hill

“Secret Identities Issue!”

Editor: Michael Eury

Publisher: TwoMorrows Publishing

Comments: There’s a solicit for issues #21 and #22 in the back of this one, not sure what that means as this is the current issue. Let’s just accept that TwoMorrows plans ahead in their goals to augment and preserve background information and history relating to this industry.

Back Issue isn’t the type of book where one needs every issue, anyway, but it is one where you might search out an issue because of a particular feature that reflects your own specialized interests as a collector. This issue, under the loose framework of “secret identities,” offers up a wealth of information on a lot of costumed adventurers, as always with a characteristic respect for the field’s classic creators.

My specialized interests don’t intersect with everything in the book, however, so let me at least mention the articles I will be passing over in this review. I’ll probably never read the “Jawing with Jerry Ordway” interview (I’m content to appreciate his work when it graces a book I already buy); the Moon Knight article features a commissioned drawing by Don Perlin (who was drawing Werewolf by Night when Moonknight debuted); the Human Fly biography features some dramatic unpublished drawings by Frank Robbins. I don’t even know what to think of the Dave Gibbons fumetti piece.

I’m similarly uninterested in the Clark Kent roundtable, though it does corral an impressive group of seventies DC writers. The Superman Color Art Gallery is a charming piffle, for Curt Swan completists only. Jennifer Contino’s list of Top 10 secret identity tips is an amusing ironic wink at established conventions of superhero storytelling.

What really grabbed my attention, however, was Bob McLeod’s spirited defense of fellow inker Vince Colletta in his “Off My Chest” column. McLeod acknowledges “Vinnie’s” unfortunate reputation as “comics’ worst inker,” but with even the best of intentions there’s precious little he can muster to rehabilitate that rep. McLeod prefers Colletta's inks over Kirby on Thor, but due to nostalgia more than any compelling aesthetic reason. He acknowledges that fellow talents like Palmer, Sinnott, Janson and Giordano completely outclassed Colletta. He points out that Colletta got work not because he was good, but because he was fast, and he knows full well (as an inker of some fame himself) that speed came about due to shortcuts taken. In one especially damning anecdote we learn that Colletta’s insensitive inking actually drove Frank Giacoia from penciling, so disappointed was he in what was lost when his detailed pencils saw print under Colletta’s rough inks. What’s McLeod’s evidence for the defense? That Colletta did a better job on romance comics in the fifties, and that he got work and made a living where others failed. Faint praise indeed. There’s little that’s distinctive in the reprinted romance panels, and the Thor cover he unearths may be one of Colletta’s better ones, but the blacks are too heavy and bulky outlines serve for figural definition all too often.

There’s a reason the other inkers mentioned above have better reputations. They seemed to get steady work too. McLeod comes can’t deny what Colletta did to Perez, or Tuska, or many other artists of many of Marvel’s “House of Ideas” seventies titles. All of those artists looked better under other pens and brushes, and Colletta’s presence often meant that clever stories were marred by lackluster art. Someone that can be described as “[sacrificing] quality for quantity … [cutting] a lot of corners, blacking in details and erasing small background figures” in the interest of making more money is the definition of a hack, no matter how much one might wish the fans could be more forgiving.

I was also intrigued by the examination of the Ronnie Raymond/Prof. Stein Firestorm, who was initially conceived as a sort of DC inverse of Spider-Man. Tom Stewart gets some good quotes and unearths some impressive Al Milgrom pencils to bring us back to that hopeful pre-DC-Implosion era.

Even more relevant (both to now and then, as Zack Smith makes clear when he digs for thoughts on Marvel’s Civil War) is a look back at what Englehart and Buscema achieved in Captain America with “The Nomad Saga.” This “Pro2Pro” dialogue explores one of the most distinctive of any arcs ever done with the challenging Golden Age Marvel hero. The article does the usual thorough exploration of both the genesis and the legacy of Cap’s Nomad idea, and Smith asks hard questions about what Englehart meant to achieve and what inspired him in the politics of the time. We also enjoy some much deserved praise for Sal Buscema, who worked in his brother John’s shadow at the start of his career.

But perhaps most fascinating of all is a wonderful look into the mysterious and multi-faceted world of The Question, a character DC acquired from Charlton and who is now playing memorable roles in 52 and in the animated Justice League series. Alex Boney gives an extraordinarily detailed look at each of the phases of the character's evolution, from his creation (under guidance by the aforementioned Dick Giordano) by Steve Ditko as a ball-breaking Rand-ian tough guy, to his acquisition by DC and a memorable eighties series by Denys Cowan and Denny O’Neil which tempered his black and white (Objectivist) view of justice with Eastern philosophy. His inspiration in The Spirit and his legacy in Watchmen’s Rorschach are also acknowledged, and throughout Boney keeps the focus on what remained consistent in the fascinating nature of the “man with a secret identity but without an alter ego.” By evidence uncovered in this well-researched article, it seems he’s fared better than many other Ditko creations as far as holding onto something of his initial verve.

As usual, lovely art is used to illustrate the feature, and it’s impressive that the Question has inspired talent as diverse as Ditko and Cowan as well as Alex Toth, Bill Sienkiewicz and John Byrne. The Question is not a character I’d experienced much outside of JLU and 52, but this rewarding retrospective definitely increases both my fascination and understanding of an “action hero” (that is, one who gets by on his own wits and trickery and gadgets and gimmicks rather than any special powers), now enjoying his fourth decade.

Also not to be missed is a letter from the famed Arnold Drake, who writes in to correct a misconception about a character he co-created, Deadman, that saw print in a previous issue. Though firm about his version of the facts, the letter is gracious throughout, and I take it as a symbol of the goodwill that TwoMorrows has built up. Drake seems quite proud to have his work acknowledged so lovingly, and the frank dialogue here is evidence of the soundness of the TwoMorrows policy (across its publications) to quote their sources in full and leave any editorializing largely to those self-same creators. A stance of worshipful awe won’t do a critic much good, but it’s a fine policy for curators compiling a catalogue raisonné, which is what the TwoMorrows publishing operation amounts to for comic book artists and writers.

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